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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Kris Kitko's blog

Oh, the Places You Will (Not) Go: Inside Forbidden Spaces at the Former Governors’ Mansion

In his classic children’s book, Dr. Seuss wrote, “Oh, the places you will go….” But at the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, we could add “and the places you will not go.” We have both kinds of places—rooms and nooks where visitors can spend hours, and places that are generally off-limits because of accessibility or safety issues (such as the precarious basement stairs). Let me take you now to some of those forbidden places.

Roof: The hatch in the ceiling of the attic can be reached by climbing a ladder, and the original, 134-year-old wooden ladder is still used today by our staff for roof access. The flat roof, marked by the widow’s walk railing, provides a stunning view of downtown Bismarck and beyond.

Basement: Although the interpretive panel on the basement door describes the area, venturing into the basement is more exciting. While there is electricity (bulbs hanging from cords), a flashlight provides a better view of the cistern, coal room, and the work table used by prison release trustees (inmates cleared to leave the prison briefly to perform repairs and upkeep at the Mansion). The enormous silver furnace, most likely original to the mansion, is a work of historic technological art.


Furnace in basement (Photo: Johnathan Campbell)

The cistern (the original water source) is approximately ten feet deep and can be accessed only by crawling through a space high in the wall of the coal room. Around the corner is a small bathroom (added between 1907 and 1913) with a toilet still equipped with the wooden tank and pull cord high above the seat. This area also contained a laundry room and a cupboard for canned goods.

Bathroom Cabinets: One of Bismarck’s first indoor bathrooms is mostly sectioned off from traffic. Still inside the cupboard, out of view from the hallway, sits a can of Bon Ami cleanser, circa 1940s.

Top Floor, Carriage House: As the interpretive panel describes, some of the mansion’s caretakers and their families lived in the bright, airy apartment on the upper floor of the Carriage House. Because that area is now Johnathan Campbell’s office (the site supervisor), it is not open for tours. But some of the features of the apartment remain, such as the faux burnished copper light fixtures popular during the Arts and Crafts Movement (late 1800s–early 1900s).

Light fixture

Faux burnished copper light fixture, 1920s (photo: Kris Kitko)

Servant’s Staircase: The narrow, steep, unlit staircase (without handrails) hides a memento in the dark door frame: the initials “R.H.” written in pencil. Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell speculates that the culprit was Robert Hanna, son of Governor Louis B. Hanna, who lived in the mansion with his family from 1913 to 1917.

Initials R.H. written on wood

Initials in servant's staircase (photo: Johnathan Campbell)

If you visit the mansion and would like to see some of these unique spaces, be sure to ask. We may be able to accommodate some requests, with the exception of rooftop visits—as much as we’d like to!

Every year it seems we find something yet to be uncovered, like a tossed light bulb under a staircase, letters etched in wood, or evidence of something that was once secured to the floor. So keep your eyes open; perhaps you will make a discovery in one of the places you (usually) can’t go!

Personal Memories Connect Historic Home with Today: Gathering Stories from Friends and Relatives of North Dakota Governors

Family members and friends of the Former Governors’ Mansion’s past occupants still visit the site; these moments provide unique opportunities to hear behind-the-scenes stories. I’ll share a few of my favorites with you.

In September 2017, a gentleman and his two children from New York visited; he wanted to show his kids where their grandmother had once lived. His son looked me in the eye and said, “I also want to see the picture of my great grandfather.” The father then explained that his mother is one of Governor William Langer’s daughters. Langer was governor from 1932-34 and from 1937-1939.

As they walked around, the boy asked questions about historical events, some meant as a friendly quiz because he knew the answers. I enjoyed his spark and conversation style, which reminded me somewhat of a chess game. There was no doubt that he was the great grandson of Bill Langer. The girl, younger and not as captivated by talk of wallpaper from the 1930s, looked fondly at the piano. I welcomed her to play; the room filled with music from the same Steinway that Langer had acquired for the Mansion.

Governor John Davis's family

Governor and Mrs. John Davis and their children Richard, Kathleen, and John Jr., 1958. State Archives, A2528.

And then there’s the story of the secret identity. As part of our augmented reality project at the Mansion, I invited John Davis, Jr. , for an interview in September 2016, and he graciously accepted. John E. Davis was the state’s 25th governor from 1957-1961. In addition to showing me photos of his father, he told a few stories about living in the Mansion. Disliking the limelight when he was a teen, John Davis, Jr., didn’t want people to know that he was the governor’s son. While attending college in Montana, he carpooled home for holidays for two years without telling his travel companions about his father. He told them to drop him off at his grandmother's house down the road, so they wouldn’t know he lived in the Mansion!

Usher L. Burdick

Portrait of Usher L. Burdick, 1929. State Archives, B0076.

Another favorite encounter was with Ruth Haugland in the summer of 2016. She introduced herself and said that she was in her eighties but did not describe—at first—her ties to North Dakota history. As we chatted, I mentioned my background in teaching. Haugland said, “My father was a teacher. In fact, that’s how he met Usher Burdick.” Usher Burdick served in the ND House of Representatives, was lieutenant governor from 1935 to 1945, and served in the US House of Representatives from 1949 to 1959. Long before Burdick’s political career, Haugland’s father, Torger Sinness, answered a call to teach a bunch of rowdy schoolboys (including Burdick). The school, on Graham’s Island on Devil’s Lake, had lost a number of teachers who had literally run from the classroom and never returned; boys had been known to toss teachers or students out the windows!

Haugland said her father walked into the classroom with a pistol in his pocket, which quickly settled the class. Although Burdick put much energy into trying to scare away Sinness (including sneaking into his bedroom one night and beating him up), the teacher stood firm and eventually became Usher’s friend, mentor, and campaign manager throughout Burdick’s political career.

Another story about Haugland’s father related to the boneshaker (a bicycle with one large wheel and a tall seat) displayed in the Mansion’s Carriage House museum gallery. As we looked at it, Haugland mentioned that her father was never afraid of a challenge. She shared, “A man once challenged him to a boneshaker race. It was to be held the next day — and for a cash prize.” She leaned in closer. “Although my father had never been on a boneshaker, he accepted the challenge,” she said. In bed early to be rested for the next day, he didn’t fret about it. “And the most amazing thing happened,” she continued. “He said that he had a dream that played like a movie, and he was shown everything he needed to know about climbing onto a boneshaker, pedaling, balancing — and winning a race.”

The next day, using the images from his dream, he climbed onto the bone shaker and left his competition far behind.

Although these are brief encounters, they are the moments that breathe life into a historic site, often playing out like the “movie” in Torger Sinness’s dream. I love to see visitors’ eyes brighten at the story of the boneshaker race or a governor’s son who went to great lengths to blend in with his peers. And the story collection is growing for this interpreter who, some days, is lucky enough to catch a trip through time with the unexpected visitors who walk through our door.